Israel Election Results: As Deadline Nears, No Candidate Has Enough Support to Form Government

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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President Reuven Rivlin casting his ballot in Israel's March 23 election, last week.
President Reuven Rivlin casting his ballot in Israel's March 23 election, last week. Credit: Emil Salman
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

With President Reuven Rivlin set to begin meeting the heads of political parties on Monday to hear their recommendations for prime minister, no party leader has been able to garner the support of a majority of 61 lawmakers.

Currently, 52 Members of Knesset are expected to support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In addition to Likud’s lawmakers, this includes the MKs from the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas, United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid might be able to present the president with recommendations from 50 MKs, including the members of his party as well as Kahol Lavan, Yisrael Beiteinu, Meretz, and possibly Labor and the largely Arab Joint List. Meanwhile, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett has between seven and 13 MKs who will recommend that he be tasked with forming the new government if Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope decides to support him, along with members of Bennett’s own party.

The chairman of the United Arab List, MK Mansour Abbas, has declined to disclose who he will recommend as prime minister. In a speech he gave in Nazareth last week, Abbas said he “doesn’t want to be part of any bloc on the right or the left,” adding that unlike other politicians, “I have not ruled anyone out. This is the time to create a different reality.” Lacking a majority of 61 MKs who recommend a candidate to form the new government, the president will task the person he deems most likely to be able to succeed.

MK Bezalel Smotrich, chairman of the Religious Zionism party, is currently blocking Netanyahu’s ability to attain the majority that would allow him to form a coalition. In a statement on Friday, Smotrich said that despite Abbas’ conciliatory speech last week, Religious Zionism will not be part of a government established with the support of the United Arab List, or by the latter’s abstention in government votes. “The establishment of a government relying on the UAL and Mansour Abbas will be a disaster for generations and we will not allow it to come about,” he said.

Ahead of the MKs’ meetings with the president to deliver their recommendations, Bennett held a round of meetings at the end of the week. On Saturday he met with Lapid for the first time since the elections. On Friday Bennett met with Netanyahu. According to officials in Yamina, Bennett is deliberating what steps to take. “Netanyahu and Bennett understand that Netanyahu doesn’t have a government at the moment and therefore it’s not relevant. On the other hand, Bennett knows full well that if he supports a coalition with Lapid, he’s finished on the right, even if he serves as prime minister and leads that coalition,” a source close to Bennett said.

Yamina is facing some difficult considerations: Bennett would want to be prime minister, but his advisers have warned him that such a move would break up his party, not all of whose members want to enter a government with the left-wing parties and supported by the predominantly Arab Joint List. In addition, sources in the party say that right-wing voters will take revenge on Bennett in the next elections and end his chances to become the leader of the right-wing if he cooperates with Joint List and the left-wing parties.

On the other hand, in Yesh Atid they are suspicious of Bennett. Sources in the party say that Bennett would have closed a deal on a coalition with Netanyahu over the weekend and recommended Netanyahu as prime minister were it not for Smotrich’s statement.

Lapid is demanding that Bennett show he is serious by recommending to the president that he task the Yesh Atid leader with forming the government. According to sources in Yesh Atid, if he does that then it would be possible to discuss some sort of rotation between Lapid and Bennett. However, if Bennett made a deal with Netanyahu, then the anti-Netanyahu bloc would inadvertently be crowning Netanyahu if they recommend that Bennett be given the chance to form a government.

Along with the clear recommendations, the president will try on Monday to break through the walls of election promises of the various parties to find alternatives for a candidate to form a stable government. The president is expected to ask the MKs whether there is a candidate that they have agreed to cooperate with even if they do not recommend that candidate as prime minister.

Likud – the largest party in the next Knesset with 30 seats – will come to the president first, at 9:30 A.M. Symbolically, United Arab List which may have the ability to decide who will be Israel’s next prime minister, will end the round of consultations at 7:45 P.M., and, as noted, will probably not recommend Netanyahu, Bennett or Lapid. President Rivlin has made clear that he intends to come to a decision as soon as possible, tomorrow or Tuesday, and in any case no later than Wednesday.

If no party reneges on its election pledges and no individual MKs cross party lines to join the other side, then no one will be able to form a coalition and a fifth election in two years will become necessary. Over the past few days, various political sources have said that the two main players, Netanyahu and Lapid, might prefer another election that could increase the size of their party’s representation in the Knesset and lead to the fall of the small right-wing parties – Yamina, New Hope and Religious Zionism, who siphoned off many Knesset seats.

The meeting between Bennett and Netanyahu, who are considered bitter rivals, took place in the Prime Minister’s Office in a good atmosphere. At the end of the meeting, which took about three hours, a statement from Yamina said that Netanyahu and Bennett “discussed the need to establish a stable and functioning government as soon as possible and the possibilities to bring this about in the political situation that has been created.” Bennett did not announce his intention to recommend Netanyahu to the president and has not backtracked on his statement that he would do everything he could to avoid a fifth election. At the beginning of the meeting with Netanyahu, Bennett said: “We have one goal: to establish a good and stable government as soon as possible that will take care of the citizens of Israel. We will spare no effort in reaching this outcome.” Netanyahu tried to tempt Bennett with a host of promises, including senior cabinet posts and an “entry ticket” to run for head of Likud by giving seven places on the Likud slate to Bennett’s people and agreement in principle to bring into Likud thousands of members of the Yamina voters and members of its Central Committee.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu called on Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar, who broke away from Likud to form New Hope, to join him in a right-wing government. “It’s no secret that we have differences, but we have known how to overcome them,” Netanyahu said. “Let’s put the past behind us. This is what the huge numbers of people who voted for Likud and the right-wing parties want us to do. The people have decided that we must sit together. I call on you – come home,” the prime minister said. Sa’ar, who has meanwhile not said who he will recommend, rejected the offer and said: “I’ll keep my promise to the voters. I will not join a government headed by Netanyahu and I will not support it. The continuation of the term in office of Netanyahu, who prefers his own good over the good of the country, hurts Israel.”

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